I’m surprisingly good at acting calm, cool, and collected when my life is chaotic. But the year I became a single mom, I couldn’t hide my anxiety, and my father quickly noticed how frazzled I was.
After a mental break down, my partner had fled New York City without leaving a forwarding address. I was alone with my seven-month-old baby, far from home in California.
When father came to visit, he offered to let us come and live with him. I was grateful, but also apprehensive. I was 30 years old, with a job in publishing, even if I could barely cover my rent, I’d been on my own since graduating from high school.
To put it kindly, my father is the kind of man who likes to call the shots. Growing up, we’d often butt heads. But I wanted to believe that perhaps we’d both grown up during our years apart. Maybe we could find a reconnection. Maybe my dad could become the man in my daughter’s life. I wasn’t sure how to start over again, but I wanted to try.
Those first few weeks living in my dad’s apartment, I felt hopeful. He made my daughter laugh. She made him feel loved. Not so fast. Soon, he was criticizing my parenting. First, he raised his nose at the hand-me-downs my daughter wore. Then he told me she was too skinny. When he asked if he could call her pediatrician to schedule a call, I wanted to give him a time-out.
Those first few months with my father were rocky, and years later, we still struggle to listen to each other and find a middle ground. Along the way, I’ve come up with a few tips to help me maintain boundaries as the parent, and still give him the space to be close to his grandchildren.
Be direct and straightforward
If the grandparents offer to take care of your kids for an afternoon or evening, be very clear about the plan, and stick to it.
For example, kindly tell your parents what time you’d like them to be at your doorstep, and what time you plan to return. (Don’t be late unless it’s an emergency.)
Also, be clear about your expectations. Please feed the baby organic carrots, which I made this morning and pureed… Limit screen time to half an hour… One cookie for dessert, but that’s it on sugar….
If there’s a birthday or big holiday coming up, be sure to communicate with grandparents about gifts that won’t be so welcome in your home. It took my own father many years to realize how much I despised plastic toys that made noise. (I’ll admit to being passive-aggressive and sneaking them back into his house.) He now realizes how much we all appreciate books over Barbies.
If your parents are on a mission to outshine you in the gift-giving department, you might consider giving them that honor and letting them splurge on the swing set or bunk bed.
Know that grandparents will break the rules. Do your best to be chill.
Let’s be real. Even if you lay down the law — what did I say about screen time? did you let them eat a box of licorice? — your parents are probably going to test the limits. As long as your kids are safe (i.e., Grandpa isn’t driving them around without a car seat), try to stay calm.
When my father cared for my preschooler one Saturday evening a month, I knew she’d fall asleep with the TV on, no matter how I’d much asked him to limit it. (Fortunately, it was PBS kids.)
I was so ready to explode, but that never works. Do your best to remember that you just got a whole evening of FREE childcare. Especially if your kids are safe and sound, fast asleep in bed. In the big picture, they’ll be fine. Even if grandma did feed your little one GMO carrots from the jar…
Remember that you are the parent
Not to discredit the advice in #2, but when it comes to big parenting decisions, you are in charge.
For example, grandparents do NOT get to decide when it’s time for you to wean, or move your children to their own bed, or potty train, or start preschool.
Even if your parents are helping you out financially, it’s still up to you when it comes to all the important stuff. No doubt, grandparents are ready to pour on their own advice, as they remind you what a great job they did raising you. As the parent, you have the last word.